By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
My only concern as we threw out the decoys that morning was lack of cover. We had the entire island to ourselves—all three acres of it—but the highest dry land rose only a few feet above the waterline, and the tallest vegetation consisted of parched scrub. I finally had found an eroded bank tall enough to break up our outline as long as we were sitting down, and that would have to do.
The ducks didn’t seem to care. The first flock came in low over the water as if we were reeling them in with our fly rods (which we had brought in case any redfish tails appeared in our decoy spread). Their rapid wingbeats and tight formation identified them as divers, but I couldn’t confirm them as redheads until they were within shotgun range. “Drakes on the left!” I shouted as I struggled into shooting position. I was able to kill one bird with my first barrel, as did my wife, Lori.
We were hunting the Laguna Madre, the shallow ribbon of salt water that runs 140 miles between the Texas mainland and Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico’s western shore. A unique marine ecosystem, it is North America’s only hypersaline lagoon and just one of six in the world. Vast numbers of waterfowl, especially diving ducks, winter here. A remarkable 80 percent of the redheads in the world spend the cold months here.
Texas isn’t known for public-land hunting opportunities, since the percentage of its surface area in public hands is the lowest of any Western state. However, coastal shoreline below the mean high-water mark is public—if you can reach it (see below).
The completion of the Texas portion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICWW) in 1949 connected the Upper and Lower segments of Laguna Madre and permanently altered its character. Dredging resulted in countless tons of sea bottom being dug from the ICWW channel, and the Army Corps of Engineers dumped it alongside the channel, creating two long, parallel rows of “spoil islands” that now are owned by the state. The ecological cost was considerable, but the spoil islands provide a great place to hunt ducks.
Reaching them requires a boat. The easiest way to do this is with a guide or charter. Port Mansfield, Port Isabel and the town of South Padre Island all support large fishing-charter fleets. Boat rentals are also available in these communities. Hardcore DIY hunters with their own boats can do it, too, with suitable watercraft. Public boat ramps are available in the towns mentioned earlier.
While the ICWW is safe and well marked, you’re on your own once you leave its boundaries. A shallow draft boat is mandatory. Water changes abruptly from barely deep enough to too shallow. And while most of the bottom is mud and sand, oyster bars are plentiful and can be hard on outboards.
Lori and I finished our morning with species sub-limits of redheads and scaup. Though divers often predominate, one also can expect teal, pintails and other puddle ducks (although almost never mallards), especially close to fresh water on the mainland. After finishing the day with a couple of fly-rod redfish and shucked oysters for dinner, we were ready to come back every year. And we have.
For more information, visit tpwd.texas.gov.